Beyond the Cusp

April 6, 2014

Are Privacy Rights Even Possible Today?

The United States Constitution stipulates a carefully constructed and balanced governance with opposing interests and powers separated and posed as checks against the usurpation of excessive power over time by any one branch, individual or small group of individuals. Still, the Founding Fathers were challenged by the representatives of the various states and the people to give stated recognition and formalized structure to the protections of the individual from the power and infringement by the government which resulted in the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights. This set of Amendments placed defined limitations on the government and its related institutions as well as defined unabridged rights awarded the people by an authority which superseded the government and any individual, group, corporation or entity. Initially there were a dozen proposed Amendments which were to constitute the Bill of Rights but only ten survived the ratification process. The first of the two Amendments which were not ratified pertained to the number of representatives and the maximum number of citizens they would be permitted to represent all in a sliding scale that increased the ratio as the number of representatives in the House of Representatives is increased as the total passed each hundred. It is easier to read the proposal than explain, so, it reads, “After the first enumeration required by the first article of the Constitution, there shall be one Representative for every thirty thousand, until the number shall amount to one hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less than one hundred Representatives, nor less than one Representative for every forty thousand persons, until the number of Representatives shall amount to two hundred; after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, nor more than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons.” The other rejected Amendment concerned the rate of payment for members of the House of Representatives and read, “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.”


All that may be interesting but it also has as much relevance to the modern world as do those definitions for the number of citizens each House of Representatives member has in their districts as today that number is in excess of seven hundreds of thousands, not the tens of thousands as was originally thought to be a fair ratio. The idea of personal anonymity and the safeguarding of each person from excessive government intrusion and inspection were considered sacrosanct at the writing and founding of the United States. This was a unique concept whose origins were a recent concept then and now is either a concept that has never been addressed for much of the world and becoming a quaint and dated concept where it originated in the political parlors and by the political philosophers and thinkers leading up to the founding of the United States and the explosion of representative governance in Europe and America. The current debate has taken some twists and turns especially since the revelations introduced into the public conscience through the release of classified information by Edward Snowden about the extent of spying on individual citizens by the United States government. Of course his releases told of what many thought to be excessive intrusions by the NSA and other data gathering government agencies and were perceived as being something relatively new as such unprecedented ability for gathering data, especially electronic data, was thought to be a recently acquired ability for government. The reality is even more frightening than what was revealed by Mr. Snowden as the NSA has been capable of recording virtually every bit of electronic data generated in the United States since somewhere back in the 1970s. This ability has been supplemented and expanded repeatedly going through different names, one of the more memorable being the Echelon System used in the 1980 -90s which also was capable of recording huge amounts of data comparable to the total electronic data output of the United States. It is apparent that the NSA has increased their abilities in, at a minimum, direct correlation to the amount of electronic data capable of being produced by the United States, no small feat. Recent revelation have told of the United States actually recording every e-mail and electronic communication of any one nation in the world in addition to its abilities to monitor the United States electronic output and some have spoken of the ability to record to some extent and level all the electronic communications and generated data of the entire planet. What possibility for privacy remains when measured against such unfathomable abilities?


Those who specialize in knowing the extent and depth of the abilities to gather data on an individual often are quoted, though almost always as an anonymous source, telling of borderline or even absolutely mind-boggling abilities possessed by the government spying and law enforcement agencies. There have been cases claiming they have the ability to listen to a conversation in a closed room from as much as a quarter or half mile distant simply by pointing a specialized laser at a window pane and interpreting the changes in the vibration of the glass molecules as long as the window is not covered by a thick, sound dampening set of curtains. There are claims that they can locate people using thermal imaging through walls of almost any building. Many have heard that the spy satellites optics are capable of reading a newspaper that somebody is reading sitting on a park bench. The Soviet Union demanded that their government employees never carry any classified documents outside of buildings unless they were safely contained in a briefcase. Many of the tactics used in the biggest Hollywood films such as listening in on conversations from a distance utilizing parabolic microphones and other such routine spy thriller capabilities are likely outdated by the time we see them in movies. There was a recent report that some government agency was researching some form of determining through observable and easily collected data who would be most likely to commit crimes, what those crimes would be, whom they would target and when the crime would be committed with some degree of dependable accuracy. What is the obligation of the government if they are capable of predicting future criminal events in preventing any harm resulting from such acts and how close are we to replacing the precogs lying in a pool and seeing events referred to as precrimes as in the movie Minority Report except using instruments, computers and software programs to predict such possibilities. Between the abilities of governments for data collection, computing of metadata, and making accurate predictions and profiling individuals, what possibility does anybody have of escaping with even the slightest shred of privacy intact? And what can be done to prevent governments from misusing such data, and even more important, what limits should be placed on private companies when it comes to sharing personal data and forming profiles on individuals which can and are used in targeted advertising and other such abilities. And even if such limitations were to be incorporated into regulations or criminal codes, how would they even be enforced or even could they be enforced and if enforced, what other problems would result from government attempting to gather the proof of such crimes being committed? It becomes mind-boggling just playing out the ever-expanding web resulting from data collection and manipulation.


The final area that also is providing insights which may be an even bigger threat is in the area of AI, artificial intelligence. Google and Microsoft are working with the United States government and who knows who else to utilize the data they are able to collect using buying patterns and search terminology used when searching the internet and many other data inputs to formulate a program or set of programs that will be able to predict future trends and reason and think in a manner close to that of a human being. They claim such research is being used to better serve the public and to be able to design robots in the future that will be better enabled to interact with people. What threats to our privacy exist as a result of such research and is there any way we can protect ourselves from such intrusions? The result of everything we are experiencing and that are being reported is that there is no longer anything that even resembles the privacy that the Founding Fathers attempted to give the people guarantees would be held sacred by government. That is looking less and less likely with every revelation. Now the United States is implementing a healthcare system which will posit all the healthcare information into the computers of the IRS, Internal Revenue Service, the tax people. How much power will the government have when the IRS has complete records of your healthcare and your financial situation? How will government use such data and will the government now determine the level of healthcare a person will be entitled to be provided conditional on their financial worth to the society as a whole? This could easily enter an area which at its worst could result in some form of euthanasia and a form of means testing to qualify for healthcare treatments at the least. Thinking too long and too hard on the completeness of the government’s ability to gather every iota of personal information on each and every individual, especially realizing that each of us are potentially ourselves, and to utilize this data to predict our future actions and results of everything in our lives such that they can literally know before we ourselves are aware of what tomorrow holds for each of us and use this ability for nefarious purposes which will compromise every shred of our privacy and most know our most intimate thoughts before we even have them, can any government or person be trusted with such knowledge and the power it imparts. Some of the items which were restricted to the areas of futurist political science fiction such as in Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World are now becoming within the grasp of government and companies making these stories warnings of what is coming soon to our worlds and it will make for many horrifying prognostications on what our lives will become. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely and ultimate power corrupts beyond imagination and what is coming is beyond even that.


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